Ever added a dash of salt to your baked potato only to discover that some wise guy has swapped the sugar for the salt? Or maybe they just unscrewed the cap and your dash was turned into an avalanche?
April Fools! Who hasn't enjoyed a good-hearted prank now and then? And nature is no exception. There are many plants and animals out there that have mastered the art of trickery.
You see, everyone is someone's lunch, so the more clever you are, the longer you can keep yourself off a predator's dinner plate. If speed, size or ferocity is not on your side, then bluff or hide your way out of danger.
Take the viceroy butterfly, for example. It looks so similar to a monarch butterfly that many animals, and even a lot of people, cannot tell the difference. What would be the advantage of that? It turns out that the monarch butterfly carries residual toxins in its body from eating milkweed as a caterpillar. This toxin makes it taste bad and causes the consumer to become sick. The viceroy does not posses this handy defense, so it just does its best to look like the bad guy. If a bird thinks the viceroy is really a monarch, it is less likely to eat it, and the viceroy lives another day!
Ever heard the phrase "Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack?" We like to use this handy pneumonic device to know if we're dealing with a venomous snake. Coral snakes, which are venomous, have black bands and red bands bordered by yellow, but the milk snake, which is not venomous, has yellow bands and red bands bordered by black. Milk snakes have employed the same technique as the viceroy. Simply by looking similar to the coral snake, most predators will leave it alone. After all, it is unlikely the owl who wants to eat the snake actually knows our clever little rhyme to keep it out of danger.
If you can't look like one of your neighbors, then perhaps you could try looking like the neighborhood. Everyone is familiar with camouflage, and scores of animals have perfected the art of blending in. Many animals of the Great Plains possess a brown coloration to hide in the tall and short grass plains, and most children are familiar with stick insects and just how remarkable their camouflage can be. There are plenty of insects and spiders that look like leaves, tree bark and even bird droppings, allowing them to hide in plain sight.
If you don't look like something else or don't hide as well as others, perhaps sounding like something more lethal will do the trick. The chilling warning signal of a rattlesnake is quite recognizable, but what if you don't have a handy rattle on your tail? Just by flicking its tail in dry leaves and debris, the king snake sure does a great imitation of a rattlesnake.
If you can't hide or sound threatening, then look big! Animals ranging from chimpanzees to house cats will puff up their hair, arch their backs and do anything they can to look bigger in hopes of bluffing their way through a potential threat. If that doesn't work, then play dead like the opossum or the hognose snake. Many animals are not interested in eating something that has already died in order to avoid the potential hazards of consuming rotten meat.
Predators generally prefer to take their prey by surprise. That usually means sneaking up on them from behind, but if they can't tell which end is the head and which is the tail, an ambush is rather difficult. There are various animals and insects with coloration that looks like eyespots or tails that look like heads; or even worse, tails that just fall off, allowing the prey to get away while the predator is left confused by this squirming discarded extremity.
Sometimes, mimicry is used by the predator to improve its chances of capturing prey. Angler fish use a worm-like appendage on their head to lure their dinner right into their mouth. Jaguars have been known to go fishing as well by simply dangling their tail in water, tricking a hungry fish into the danger zone.
Even plants get in on the act. Venus flytraps and pitcher plants exude sticky, sweet nectar that entices insects right to their doom, while orchid flowers resemble reproductive organs of bees, causing them to go into a mating frenzy and thus enabling the flower to be pollinated.
So, the next time someone pulls a prank on you, let them know they aren't so original after all. Mother Nature has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.